It was eight o'clock when I knocked on Father Cash's door, one floor down from mine. I could smell the glorious aroma of soup from the hallway and I hoped he still intended to offer me some, even though I was late.
"Judith, what a nice surprise." Father Cash winked. Apparently I was to pretend he hadn't invited me.
I stepped into the two-room apartment, grateful to be in a warm place after my chilly little flat. Not much had changed since the last time I had been there; the furniture was sparse as a room in a seminary and the gray walls were bare of all but a few crosses and a print of the Virgin Mary holding a rose.
"I'd like you to meet my niece, Sella."
He led me to the sofa where a young woman lay under a mound of faded quilts. She was a petite girl with tip-tilted eyes and skin so golden compared to Father Cash's dark brown that I wouldn't have immediately guessed a family relationship. "Hi Sella." I extended my hand.
"This is Judith McGillum," Father Cash told her. "She's a friend from upstairs."
The girl took my hand lethargically but didn't speak. Her fingers were as light and fragile as the bones in a bird's wing.
"Are you here for a visit, or do you intend to stay awhile?" I asked, even though I knew the answer. No one comes to this place unless they're running from something.
Sella dropped my hand and turned her face away. "She's still deciding," Father Cash explained.
He brought me a chair and for the next several minutes I tried to draw Sella out, but nothing I said elicited any response more cogent than the occasional sigh. Finally at a loss, and distracted by the gurgle of my empty stomach, I looked up at Father Cash and shrugged.
He had been standing nearby, watching in glum concern, and now he came over and stroked Sella's hair. "You're tired today, aren't you dear? Perhaps Judith can come again tomorrow while I'm making my rounds, and the two of you can have a nice chat without Uncle Marcus in the way."
I tried not to show my alarm. I didn't have any deals, tricks, or odd jobs lined up for the next day, but that didn't mean I wouldn't take any if they were offered. Rent would be due soon and I still owed money on the gas bill, if I hoped to get the heat turned back on.
Father Cash must have read my thoughts because he changed the subject before I could speak. "Have you eaten today, Judith?"
I followed him into the nook off the main room that passed for a kitchen, and waited while he ladled soup from a cooling pot on the counter into a smaller pan that he then heated over the blue flame of his two-burner stove. While I waited, I noted the empty bowl in the sink and a still-full bowl, now cold, on the counter.
"She wouldn't eat a bite," he said quietly, noting where I was looking.
I took my bowl of soup from him and sipped at it hungrily while he dug in a drawer for a spoon. "Don't take her behavior as a comment on your cooking skills," I said. "You should've been a chef."
Father Cash gave an embarrassed smile. "Then who would minister to the Lord's flock?"
"Jesus won the masses over with loaves and fishes," I reminded him.
"Yes, he did, didn't he?"
"Don't get any ideas about converting me, though."
"Of course not, dear. You're always very clear on that subject."
I nodded as I spooned the hearty soup, thick with beans, onions and carrots, into my mouth.
"Would you like some to take upstairs with you?"
I met his eyes over the rim of the bowl. Had Father Cash not been so dark, he would've been blushing.
"I haven't been with a woman since Sella arrived," he went on, "and you did say earlier..."
It crossed my mind to tell him I was booked, but Father Cash always knew when I was lying. "It has to be my place, I guess."
He nodded. "So Sella won't know."